Why Both Agile and Math Can Be Difficult to Learn

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Agile software development can be hard, but many of the challenges may be more about perception than actual constraints. Many teams find an agile environment to be both more productive and more pleasant. This sounds similar to current research studying people's math ability. Math is something some people find both useful and beautiful. Yet many people assume math is too hard to do.

That math can be "beautiful" may be more than just qualitative. A study reported by the BBC said that "brain scans show a complex string of numbers and letters in mathematical formulae can evoke the same sense of beauty as artistic masterpieces and music from the greatest composers."

If math is both useful and beautiful, why do many people find math challenging and beyond them? In the same way that mathematical formulae have the ability to create positive reactions in your brain, math anxiety can cause your brain to react as if you are in physical pain. According to University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, these side effects can be diminished. "If math anxious people spend 10 minutes writing about their fears, they purge their anxiety and perform better—and reduce any physical reactions."

Some of the reasons people find math challenging have to do with perception. Noah Smith and Miles Kimball explain that the reason some kids excel at math and some don't is that they believe that they can or can't.

In addition to one's own beliefs, what others think can influence your success. Teacher expectations influence students' performance. Changing the beliefs that lead to biased expectations is hard but doable; the article states that "to change beliefs, the best thing to do is change behaviors."

More than a few projects assert that "we can't do agile” and accept that fact without analysis. And, even when engineering teams think agile will work, there are sometimes external forces that expect agile to fail.

Although positive expectations alone can't assure a project's success, negative ones may encourage failure. Dealing with these sorts of expectation gaps can be harder than dealing with technical challenges. But being aware that they exist and can have a real impact on success can give you a framework to help overcome them.

Have you noticed different expectations going into successful agile projects and those that were not successful? What have you done to address overly pessimistic expectations?

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Steve Berczuk

Steve Berczuk is a Principal Engineer and ScrumMaster at Fitbit in Boston, MA. He is the author of Software Configuration Management Patterns: Effective Teamwork, Practical Integration, and has an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT.